Michael D. Shear, William Branigin and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; 1:38 PM
President Obama on Wednesday fired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan and replaced him with Gen. David H. Petraeus, a White House official said.
Obama's move came shortly after McChrystal met with him one-on-one at the White House to apologize personally for derogatory comments about top administration officials involved in the Afghan war.
The general departed the White House immediately after the meeting, leaving his fate in doubt.
Petraeus moves to take over the Afghan war effort from his post as head of the Central Command, where he has been in charge of all U.S. forces in the Middle East. He previously commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and was credited with implementing a strategy that turned the tide against insurgents and sectarian groups in that war.
McChrystal, 55, who was named by Obama last year to run the war in Afghanistan, saw the president after conferring Wednesday morning at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The meeting with Obama began at 9:51 a.m. in the Oval Office and lasted about half an hour. It preceded a scheduled conference of Obama's national security team on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the White House Situation Room. Among the top officials slated to attend, according to the White House, were McChrystal and several of the people he and his aides had disparaged in biting remarks reported by Rolling Stone magazine. In addition to Obama, those attendees included Vice President Biden, National Security Adviser James L. Jones and, by video conference, special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry.
Obama later postponed a previously scheduled lunch with senators and decided to skip a 2:50 p.m. event on physical fitness and nutrition, sending first lady Michelle Obama instead.
In response to the disparaging comments, an angry Obama had left open the option of firing McChrystal, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.
But in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai cautioned Obama against replacing the commander of the U.S. and NATO war effort.
In a video conference call with Obama on Tuesday night, Karzai said "that we are in a very sensitive juncture in our partnership and our war on terror," Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said in a news conference Wednesday. "Any gaps in this process would not be helpful."
During the call, Obama told Karzai that he would not rush to a decision on whether to fire McChrystal, Omar said.
The endorsement illustrated what was seen as McChrystal's best shot at saving his job and legacy: The general was arguably the U.S. official who has the most influence over, and credibility with, the Afghan government.
Omar called McChrystal a "great partner of the Afghan government," who has "increased the level of trust between the partners."
The furor erupted on Tuesday after the Rolling Stone magazine profileof McChrystal, titled "The Runaway General," started circulating.
Aides quoted anonymously in the article accused Obama of being uninformed and disengaged during his first solo meeting with the general, in spring 2009. And they described Karzai as being "locked up in his palace this past year" and out of the loop, even as the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan relied on making the Afghan government a strong and credible partner.
The controversy over the article comes amid a U.S. troop surge requested by McChrystal and a spike in NATO casualties that has raised alarm in Washington and NATO capitals.
On Wednesday, NATO announced that two American troops died the day before in bombings in southern Afghanistan, where the radical Islamist Taliban movement has stepped up attacks as the U.S.-led international force has attempted to wrest control of their strongholds.
So far this month, at least 59 NATO troops, including 43 U.S. service members, have been killed in Afghanistan. That means June is on pace to become the deadliest month for NATO troops in the nearly nine-year war.
The fallout of the McChrystal scandal is also being closely watched in Pakistan, where the general has established close ties with military commanders.
McChrystal has paid several visits to Pakistan in an effort to win support for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Many Afghan Taliban leaders and fighters have established sanctuaries in Pakistan's border regions, and the United States has been pressuring the nation to assist coalition forces by targeting those groups. Pakistan has resisted, arguing that its forces are already occupied fighting domestic insurgents.
But officials from both nations say cooperation and intelligence-sharing between the two nations has improved. McChrystal has established a particularly good rapport with Pakistan's powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistani officials said.
McChrystal has held monthly meetings with Kayani, most recently on June 14 in Islamabad. Kayani visited the headquarters of coalition forces in Afghanistan last month with McChrystal and Karzai. In January, Kayani took McChrystal on a helicopter tour of the Swat Valley, where Pakistani forces launched an operation last summer to push out Pakistani Taliban fighters.
As McChrystal's meeting with Obama approached, Pakistan -- which is extremely sensitive about allegations that it secretly tries to manage the conflict next door through ties to Afghan insurgents -- made no official statement about whether McChrystal should stay. On Wednesday, Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, met with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and other officials.
Pakistani sources said the topic of McChrystal was discussed but that Pakistan made no demands. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several Pakistani officials said they strongly believed that the U.S. general should remain in place for the sake of continuity.
"He shouldn't be changed midstream," a senior Pakistani intelligence official said before Obama's action. "It's never a good policy to change the military commanders."
Speaking on the record, Farhatullah Babar, Zardari's spokesman, said, "We are not saying anything about this publicly."
Londoño reported from Kabul. Karin Brulliard in Islamabad and Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.
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